Criminals Among Us: They’re Not Always Who We Think They Are

by Jack Bragen

Criminals really exist. They aren’t just a figment of the imagination of political conservatives. Having been a victim of crime myself constitutes one of the reasons that I don’t agree with defunding police. Much of the time, the only thing that can get a criminal out of one’s face is the certainty that the cops are on their way. And I’m saying that as a mentally ill adult with an imperfect past, in which I have been disproportionately punished for supposed antisocial behavior. 

While criminals really exist, the systems we have for dealing with them barely if at all work. Most of those who behave violently or who commit other crimes have been raised in abusive situations. Most of them haven’t been encouraged and helped to better themselves and their lives. As role models, they might be looking toward people who espouse violence.

Criminals are often predatory toward nice people. They will often equate being nice with weakness, and they will treat good people as human doormats, if they can get away with it. 

Towards me, if I’m smoking in public, many have approached and have tried to give me cash for a cigarette. This is a first step toward an attempt to sell drugs or recruit me for drug trafficking. It starts with cash for a cigarette and then it progresses to further involvement in a criminal scheme. Then, when police come around, the hapless victim is the fall guy. 

When someone tries to give cash for a cigarette, I have some tactics that work to get rid of them. One of them is verbal pushback and using my voice as a first line of defense. Following that, if they persist, the cell phone comes out of my pocket. 

(But if someone just asks for a cigarette as a favor, I’m usually glad to give them one so long as they are not underage.)

“Criminals” and “homeless people” are not the same thing. Maybe some mainstream individuals lump together those two types of people. Homeless people are just trying to survive, are probably not violent or set out to intentionally hurt people. And they may eke out by collecting cans, vending street papers, or asking people on the streets for money. 

Begging in the history of Buddhism was considered an honorable tradition if you were a spiritual seeker. 

Homeless people may be victims of criminals. Yet homeless people may not have anything of value that a criminal would want. 

Criminals tend to presume they can intimidate me because I am a smaller, nicer man. When I don’t go along with their plans or just stand up to their bullying behavior, they become incensed. And yet to keep my self-respect intact, I’m willing to risk being clobbered by a bigger, stronger man to avoid humiliation. 

But society is not innocent. A person who ends up as a “criminal” may have been doomed right out the gate. We have social structures that lock out anyone who has not walked the supposed “straight and narrow,”and not everyone can conform to that model, especially in the world of the affluent.  

Yet, that doesn’t mean that we can be nice toward a criminal and expect good results. Many are people who prey on the vulnerable, or who exploit other people’s fear, suggestibility and naivete. Their systems of ethics are less rooted in Buddhist literature, in the Torah or in the King James Bible, and more in dominance. 

Still, many criminals seem to have a difficult time liking themselves, and this is often apparent in a verbal exchange. 

I have met and dealt with criminals partly because of my long-term experience of living in low-income rentals. In 1983, I also met criminals who held up an East Bay supermarket where I worked; I was an innocent bystander, only 19 years old. Both men carried firearms. I am alive today through dumb luck, and also because the gunmen said that they didn’t want to shoot anyone “unless we have to.” 

When I was 25, a drug dealer assaulted me in the apartment complex where I was renting in Concord. Police called it “mutual combat,” even though I was the victim who was defending himself. 

Some criminals aren’t on the street physically intimidating others. They might work on Wall Street, or in seats of government. Think Bernie Madoff, who fleeced wealthy people in a Ponzi scheme. Or Donald Trump, now a convicted felon who falsified business records to secure an electoral win. You can’t be convicted of 34 felonies and try to say the person isn’t a criminal—it is a simple equation.

This article is not easy to write because my talking points are not cheery, but I still need to talk about these things, if only to benefit others. If I speak of being a victim of a criminal, there are probably readers who can identify. Also if I speak of being dealt with as a criminal, it could help a person heal and realize they too are a human being, and maybe they haven’t had it very easy in life. 

In my past, I have done things my own way and have followed my own rules. I’ve had unconventional ways of doing things that have made people wonder if I were a criminal.

I have been jailed when I was badly psychotic. It was the worst and most difficult thing to which I’ve been subjected. And in comparison, I have otherwise lived in a sea of difficulty. My experience of being jailed was painful enough that I am mindful of the law. 

But later I discovered that the authorities often jail mentally ill people–far too often. We’re punished for having a brain disease. The punishing of people jailed while in a psychotic episode is a shame on our supposed “criminal justice” system. 

The system for dealing with criminals is a broken system. Having seen how those deemed “a criminal” are dealt with, it is very clear that society has created this. The “criminal”, even if we must protect ourselves from them and even if we must have an effective deterrent, is the symptom. Our society rejects and condemns human beings and that’s a big part of the problem. 

Jack Bragen is author of “Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia: A Self-Help Manual,” and has other writings searchable on the web. He lives in Martinez, California.